Almost a decade into their career, Hot Milligan is still on the rise. Formed in 2014 by friends in the Michigan punk scene, the self proclaimed post-emo band continues to grow their message in reach and cohesiveness. While their visuals and media presence are often strictly lighthearted, their music dedicates open space to the bleak and bittersweet. On their third studio album Why Would I Watch, the center motif of family and memory is used to continue to explore the highs and lows of young adulthood with some of their most mature and focused songwriting to date.
In a recent tik tok, guitarist Ryan Malisci is tossed a piece of equipment before being drop kicked in the chest. The video, playful and repeatable, displays the undeniable humor and comraderie of the now four piece. Formed around the peak of the “sadboi” pop punk era (The Wonder Years released The Greatest Generation the year before their formation) Hot Mulligan follows in theme of retrospectives on the people and places from childhood - what were they then and where are they now. However, unlike their perpetually flanneled early peers, their insistence on playful social media and almost sole use of inside jokes in their song titles supports their ethos that one can reflect on the horrors of Midwest adolescence without taking it all too seriously.
More than ever before, much of the observation on this record is through the familial lens. First single “Shhh Golf is On” is a directive from vocalist Tades Sanville to his mother. The guitars are powerful but straightforward giving space to Sanville as he hisses with the kind of complex anger that presents itself only to blood. The palm muted verses seem to be they only thing tethering his voice down as it weaves in and out of his trademark scream in the chorus and refrains. Aptly titled “It’s A Family Movie She Hates Her Dad” looks back on the experience of watching your family fall apart as a kid growing up. The first hand trauma lending it self to insights such as “I’ll grow up and learn that we were poor/Money talks, but it never tells you that love is more important”.
One of the most effective aspects of the this record is that no matter how far down the lyrics take you, the songs still groove. Throughout the aforementioned track Malisci and guitarist/vocalist Chris Freeman sprinkle twinkly leads into the sweeping dance of the rhythm guitars. Sanville’s percussive delivery takes cues from the superb drumming from Brandon Blakeley, adding a unique rhythm to his vocals turning a line as simple as “offer nothing, never change” into a hook of its own. Half of the next track “And I Smoke” is relentlessly catchy chorus with vocal interplay between Sanville and Freeman evoking classic Hot Mulligan tapestry. The guitar harmonics over the initial riffing pump up the jam adding to sing a long status - allowing the listener to choose if they would like to engage with the lyrics or just shout them back.
Away from the more mathy, emo presentation of some of their previous releases, the pop sensibilities on WWIW match their image in sounding like four people who can set it aside for a second to have fun. Or at least those who know the blissful escape music can provide. “No Shoes in the Coffee Shop (or Socks)” is a song about alcoholism - specifically using the day to day haze to escape remembering who you are (“if my memories lead to stark regret/well then why would I watch”). Blakeley’s tight drumming opens a pocket for the guitars to sit in the verses until the song opens up into the disco ball, two-step danciness of the chorus. In “Christ Alive Dammit My Toe Hurts” the guitars bounce and the leads intertwine but when Sanville/Freeman sing “I feel like dying” it’s not with a smirk. Instead, it’s painfully earnest as they address the ever more sarcastic use of death and dying in online humor “When did wanting to live go out of fashion/you laugh and say same when I say I’m unhappy, just stop”. In the outro, Sanville screams with enough conviction, you believe he feels it’s the only way he will be heard.
While much is said about the attempts to drink/smoke/play away from remembering, there is the underlying implication that memory is actually to be treasured. “Schmacked My Head Awf” is about witnessing and supporting a family member through dementia. The torturous minutiae of rural family life become treasured when time is limited. Once again, Blakeley’s tasteful drumming catches the ear as it propels the track forward. Twinkling synth stabs support the guitar mid track adding poignant instrumental resonance to the emotional lyrical weight. The acoustic “Betty” looks back at a lost pet, remember ing glances and curled up naps that becoming magnified when they only exist in memory.
On the surface, Why Would I Watch is a fun listen. The hooks are unrelenting, the songs alternate between driving and danceable, and the instrumentals are proficient. However, the real triumph of this release is how far down the depths go. Moreover, the listener can take the view from halfway down and decide to continue to plunge or disengage and fold into the inherent charm of the music. On this most recent release, Hot Mulligan continues to embrace the bittersweet inevitability of aging with a youthful exuberance that encourages real thought but doesn’t downplay the necessary levity.